AFC Champions League Preview: Defending champions host Victory
By Football News
AFC Champions League title-holders Guangzhou Evergrande will begin their defence of the continental competition against Melbourne Victory.
Evergrande became the first Chinese Super League club to win the ACL when they defeated Seoul 3-3 in the final on the away-goals rule and after further strengthening their squad in the lead-up to the 2014 season, Marcello Lippi's side will be expected to challenge again this year.
While Evergrande have seen Argentine playmaker Dario Conca depart for Fluminense, the capture of Italy international Alessandro Diamanti from Bologna has made waves in global football.
Diamanti has yet to play a competitive fixture for Evergrande but the 30-year-old attacking midfielder, who has represented Italy 17 times, should take on Victory at Tianhe Stadium on Wednesday, while Lippi will also be able to call upon blistering Brazilian forward pair Elkeson and Muriqui.
Elkeson has scored 24 goals in 28 appearances since joining Evergrande in December 2012, while Muriqui was the leading goalscorer and MVP in last year's ACL.
Victory could not face a tougher opening group-stage fixture than the trip to Guangzhou with the A-League club only having qualified for Group G on February 15 when they defeated Thailand's Muangthong United 2-1 in a play-off.
Melbourne head to China after a pulsating 4-3 win over Adelaide United in the A-League, where they trailed 2-1 at half-time, scored the next three goals and then had to survive a late onslaught from the Reds, who scored with seven minutes to go to ensure a nervous finish for Victory.
In the other Group G match, South Korea's Jeonbuk Motors will host Yokohama F Marinos of Japan.
Last year's runners-up, Seoul, will begin their 2014 ACL campaign on Tuesday at home against Australian champions Central Coast Mariners in Group F, while J. League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima will host Beijing Guoan.
Iran's Esteghlal are the only other team that made the 2013 semi-finals that are involved in this year's competition, and they will start on Tuesday against Al Shabab of Saudi Arabia in Group A.
The other clash from Group A will see Al Jazira take on Al Rayyan.
Kashiwa Reysol were the other semi-finalists in 2013 but have not qualified this year.
In Group B, Uzbekistan's Bunyodkor will travel to Al Fateh of Saudi Arabia and Qatari club El Jaish will host Foolad of Iran, while in Group C, Al Ain face Lekhwiya and Tractor Sazi are up against Al Ittihad.
K-League champions Pohang Steelers will welcome Cerezo Osaka to South Korea in Group E, while Thai Premier League title-holders Buriram United will travel to China to take on Shandong Luneng.
Two-time champions Al Hilal will host Al Ahli in Group D and Sepahan are set for a trip to Qatar to play Al Sadd, while in Group H, Western Sydney Wanderers will make their ACL debut against Ulsan and Guizhou Renhe are up against Kawasaki Frontale.